We are just a few days away from the biggest day of the year in the world of horse racing.
Unbelievably crazy hats that look like they belong in a zoo instead of on some lady’s head. The syrup of a southern accent so deep you think of "Gone With the Wind." And worst of all, the greatest crime ever committed against the natural wonder called bourbon, The Mint Julep.
Yes folks, it’s the Kentucky Derby in all its historic glory. If you’ve never been to Churchill Downs on Derby Day, you have missed one of the great sporting experiences of all time.
But fear not. If you want to get the next best thing to actually being there, the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino has cranked up the juice and are putting on The Ritz.
Paul Lurenz, Jr., the boss of the Off Track Betting parlor at the casino, has been around the block more than once, starting when his entire family used to make the drive from Wisconsin to Illinois to watch the thoroughbreds and the harness races. He got the bug then and it’s never left him.
Lurenz graduated from UWM with a degree in anthropology and soon realized that the job outlook wasn’t all that great. So he married his love of horse racing with his passion for education and enrolled in the racetrack management program at the University of Arizona.
All of that was followed by a chance to move back home and take over the parimutuel betting parlor at Potawatomi.
Lurenz looks like the kind of guy you’d expect to be running a betting parlor. He’s got the "Guys and Dolls" look down pat and you wouldn’t be surprised to see a big cigar clenched in his fingers.
But looks can be deceiving.
Lurenz is a sharp marketer and understands that the days of the down and out bettors being the bread and butter have long since passed. Now it’s part of the world of entertainment, competing with movies, concerts and, of course, spending time with the slots or blackjack tables at a casino.
"We are in a world where people have just so much money for recreation," Lurenz said during a break from his preparations for the Derby Day celebration. "We have to figure out how to make it attractive for people to come to the Off Track Betting parlor."
Toward that end the parlor at Potawatomi is quite a spot. There are 117 television sets throughout the place. And there is plenty to watch.
"I’ll contract with 50 to 60 tracks a year," Lurenz said. "There is always a race somewhere that people want to bet on.
"But times have changed. Sure, you’ve still got the old time railbirds. But that’s not going to be enough. We need to get new blood. I always ask myself how do we get the younger generation in here to try this. We have branched out onto social media sites.
"Take our Derby Day party. We get people who come to the parlor or the casino and then when it’s time to party they may go somewhere else. Well, we are going to meet that need with our own party and give them a reason to stay here."
The "most exciting two minutes in sports" will be run on Saturday and Potawatomi is pulling out stops to get, and keep, people.
The party will feature traditional southern food, mint juleps, all of the great racing action on plenty of big screens and music. Guests will also have the opportunity to wager on the race on self-service machines at the party. The party is open to the public ages 21 and over and will be held in the Woodland Dreams Ballroom from 2 to 6 p.m. Admission is free.
Part of the Derby delight is the outrageous array of hats on display. Potawatomi will also have a hat contest. Registration will take place from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., May 2, at the program sales booth near the skywalk. Judging will take place from 3:30 to 5 p.m., and lucky winners will walk away with cash prizes.
If you happen to be a person who loves great bourbon (I am), there is a special way to sample Woodford Reserve, the official bourbon of the derby and generally regarded as being right up there with Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit and Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve.
Dream Dance Steak, annually one of the best restaurants in Milwaukee, will have a Woodford Reserve Derby Dinner on April 30. Five courses will be paired with cocktails featuring Woodford Reserve Kentucky Bourbon. Dinner begins at 6:30 p.m. The cost is $85 per person. Call (414) 847-7884 for reservations.
Lurenz is like every bettor in the world, hanging his hope on how great tomorrow will be. And he might be right about this celebration at Potawatomi.
"We are taking it to another level this year," Lurenz said. "As the only property in town where one can wager on horse racing’s biggest event, Potawatomi wants to make this the best party in town. This will be the perfect place to celebrate for both the racing enthusiast and the casual fan."
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
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Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.